Taliban public punishments, 1996–2001


Executions are a recurrent motif in how historians, journalists and analysts have chosen to write about the Afghan Taliban. See the opening to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War as one example, or this Reuters piece from May 1999. I wanted to study the role of executions and public punishments in the Taliban’s government for a while, but lacked data to place the anecdotes into some sort of context.

This short overview is a compilation of sources relating to the Taliban’s public punishments, 1996–2001. It is compiled from publicly available sources as well as from the materials gathered as part of the Taliban Sources Project. I think it is as complete an overview as is possible to get from these public sources, given that the Taliban weren’t shy about publicising their ‘public justice project’ – indeed, for them, the publicity was the point – and that we have multiple complete newspaper runs for the time they were in power. This was collated and triangulated with sources from Associated Press, Agence France Presse, BBC Monitoring and the Afghan Islamic Press news agency.

As a brief summary, I was able to find 101 incidents in total that chronicled the deaths of 119 individuals. I included some instances of public punishment not resulting in death, but this wasn’t really the focus of my search so their numbers may be underrepresented in the list. As another caveat, I was of course only looking at public executions, not anything that went on in secret as part of intelligence or domestic security operations and so on. Kabul, Kandahar and Herat were the most prominent locations for incidents and executions, with over half the total numbers coming from those three provinces alone. (Note that this may reflect a bias in whether incidents were reported from the provinces or not).

In any case, I wanted to present the raw data here alongside a timeline and another chart or two in case this is useful for other researchers/analysts. If you find I’ve missed an event, please drop me a line via email or on twitter and I’ll be sure to add it to the database.

Now head over here for an interactive timeline, charts and the raw data...

Ecolinguism and the ethics of learning new languages


I was interviewed by Tammy Bjelland of the Business of Language podcast a few weeks ago, and the episode recently went live. Readers of this blog will know that I write about the study of language with some regularity – see the archives for some previous posts – but I don’t talk about it a great deal on my own podcast nor is it really the focus of my work. So it was nice to have a chance to talk through my background in learning languages and the challenges of learning languages with few materials available for self-study. There isn’t enough written about this.

It was also gratifying to find a forum to discuss Richard Benton’s ideas about ecolinguism. He wrote a blogpost summarising some of his ideas here:

I am an ecolinguist because I want my work to preserve the complexity of our world’s language and culture ecosystem. How do you create a strong community made up of hardened, poor refugees and rich, privileged natives? The privileged must work hard to create new connections. In middle school, the band geek or math nerd can’t simply decide to enter the “cool crowd.” Only those with strong social capital can invite in those on the outside.
The strength of our communities depends on the decisions of the privileged and the powerful. When insiders opt to forgo their comfort to commune with those who go without, they unite communities who would be isolated. When a well-educated privileged professional chooses to learn a language, for example, he forgoes his advantage in communicating in way where he feels most comfortable. The white Minnesotan, speaking elementary, broken Somali, puts the outsider, the refugee, in the position of power. Struggling to learn this difficult language allows new connections to grow.

The choices we make as to which language to learn next have a broader impact beyond our own lives. For the full discussion, visit Tammy’s website to listen to the full episode or subscribe via your preferred podcast client.

Sources and Methods: Back for Season 2


I’m very glad to be able to announce the resumption of normal services over on the Sources & Methods podcast. Matt and I took a break over the summer while I was away at Middlebury but we’re now back and excited to share a new set of interviews with interesting people doing interesting things.

For our first episode, we catch up with Will McCants whose book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, is about to hit the shelves. We start of with a discussion of the policy world and how it intersects with academia, moving on to ISIS, the study of Arabic as well as (small question) what keeps the cogs of history turning.

I really enjoyed chatting with Will for this episode and I’m really excited about the lineup we have for coming episodes. We’re recording a bunch of episodes ahead of time for logistical reasons but we’ll be releasing a new one every couple of weeks so as not to overload our regular listeners.

As always, you can subscribe to the show through iTunes and your preferred podcast client on a mobile/cellphone. For new listeners, I’d recommend checking out our back catalogue. My four favourite episodes (in chronological order:

  • Erin Cunningham (#2): on reporting in the Middle East and Erin’s work in Gaza
  • Mark Bernstein (#5): on the practicalities (and abstractions) of note-taking and working with information
  • Rohini Mohan (#9): on writing non-fiction and the difficulties of covering Sri Lanka as a journalist and researcher
  • Andrew Abbott (#15): on working with information in the twenty-first century and the use of libraries

For new listeners, I hope you can take the time to check out some of our old episodes. There’s a lot of useful information and thinking-through of difficult issues that repay (re-)listening. If you’re already subscribed, thank you and please help us by letting your friends and colleagues know about our work. Thanks!

How to Survive Middlebury's Arabic Summer School Programme


I returned from my summer course in Middlebury a few weeks ago, and I thought it might be worth writing up a few of my thoughts about the programme, whether I’d recommend it to others studying Arabic (and other languages) along with some other more practical tips for students who will be joining the summer programme in the future.

Overall, I had a good time and I learned a lot. I think that alone should be sufficient recommendation. It’s two months where you get to study something to the exclusion of everything else, so in that sense it’s a real chance to focus, to immerse yourself in the skill. To some extent, the programme almost could have been anything at all and students would benefit, especially if you’re able to work alone and at the level where you’re able to profit from self-directed study. I can’t remember the last time when I focused on one thing and one thing only over a period of two months. I was also really lucky to have two excellent teachers leading our class, and to have been awarded one of the we-pay-for-everything Kathryn Davis fellowships; for both, I’m extremely grateful.

You can read more about the programme itself here but basically, it’s an eight-week programme of intensive language instruction and practice. They implement a language pledge (to read more about my implementation of that, read this) which means for the entire duration you’re not supposed to talk or use any other language than your target language (Arabic, in my case), even when outside the classroom. I took it a step further and stopped using anything other than Arabic on twitter, email and so on.

One of the interesting (sometimes frustrating) features of the Arabic language is the so-called 'diglossia' (and here). This means that the language used in writing and in conversation in the mass media and among educated Arabs is different from the more colloquial spoken or dialect version of the language. For the beginner, this is a frustrating realisation, especially since so few programmes and textbooks seem to place much emphasis on learning the colloqial/spoken part of the language. When I studied at SOAS (the BA Arabic programme) there was virtually no emphasis placed on the dialect, aside from the year abroad (which I spent in Damascus and thus had some contact and exposure to the Syrian / shami dialect). In any case, I was expecting that the Middlebury course would have more to offer in terms of dialect tuition, especially having spent hours reading their website and course syllabi, but this was not the case. There are dialect classes four days per week, but they are not taught to any particular syllabi and it very much is a question of chance as to whether your teacher knows how to teach (and encourage the practice of) their dialect or not. The only thing I’d say, though, is that there are lots of varieties on offer, from the more common Egyption and shami to Jordanian, Moroccan and even Sudanese. Anyway, this is all just a warning to say probably don’t go to Middlebury if all you care about is developing a really good set of spoken skills.

Students take a long placement exam the day after they arrive, and then the 140-or-so of them are split into levels. Normally four is the highest level offered, but this year they added 4.5 to accommodate people who had slightly longer experience/exposure. (I was in that class).

Formal classes run from 8.45am-1:15pm (with some 5-15 minute breaks in-between to space it up) followed by lunch. After lunch, there are colloquial / dialect classes for an hour, and then you more or less spend the rest of the day doing assigned work in preparation for the next day, revision of the work you did that day and other kinds of homework. I think the teachers estimate that you should be doing four or five hours of work outside class every day, or that’s what they aim to provide/assign. That’s what’s meant by the whole "intensive" part of the Middlebury programme. (For more on whether I found the intensity of the programme useful, see below).

What follows consists of recommendations for those planning to take the programme in the future. It’s mostly things I did while I was on the course, but there are some things that I’ve since realised would have been useful as well or instead of the approach I took. Feel free to pick and choose which sections you read, as they’re all meant to more or less stand alone, depending on your interest.


I’ve already written up some thoughts, here, on what I did before the programme started to ensure that I wasn’t just revising things I had already studied. My case was perhaps unusual in that I had a long period of (somewhat-focused) study under my belt in terms of my BA degree, but years of non-use meant that I didn’t really feel confident using the language any more.

Why is it useful to do some extra study before the start of the course? I’m going to take it as a given that you’re not a complete beginner, in which case, you more or less know what you need to be studying: a little bit of grammar perhaps, lots and lots of words, lots of spoken practice, a decent amount of reading at the appropriate level, and so on. So why not get a headstart and do some study beforehand so you can benefit from the focused months coming your way?

If you’re a complete beginner, there’s still a lot of value in doing some work before the programme starts. A lot of the things you do in the early days of learning Arabic are somewhat menial (learning the alphabet, practicing pronunciation and some of the unique sounds that Arabic uses, and so on) and there’s no real reason why you can’t have this all in the bag before you start formally with the Middlebury programme. If you’re extra enthusiastic, you could learn a bunch of basic phrases that you’ll always need to use — perhaps start with this list — and/or learn the first 500-2000 (depending on your bravery) words in the Arabic frequency list. Either use the versions over at Memrise or Anki for this (both are "no-typing" courses, with audio, I think, so they should be ok for those who’ve just learnt the alphabet). And for a true bonus, pick a teacher over at iTalki and do an easy 30-45 minute lesson every week or two in the winter/spring months before the summer.

Take a look at my last post, and combine with this list for some suggestions on things you could be doing prior to the beginning of the course in June:

  • spoken practice via iTalki or some other language exchange site/programme (shout-out to the newcomer Natakallam, which pairs Syrian refugees in Lebanon with Arabic learners, benefitting both parties). From January-early June I was doing 4-5 hours of iTalki lessons every week (an hour session almost every weekday)
  • writing practice over at Lang-8 (I’ve written about this before, but basically you write entries (about anything) and people correct them for you in exchange for you correcting things in your native language (presumably English)).
  • reading practice — I read through all the Sahlawayhi books from January-June. In case you haven’t heard of this excellent series of graded readers for beginning-intermediate levels (and their paired audiobooks), you’re really missing out. The stories are quirky, and not so difficult that you’re looking up every other word in good ol’ Hans Wehr. Even if the language level in the final levels is beyond what you’re capable of, there’s still lots to devour in the early books. Strongly recommended, though this isn’t really for absolute beginners.
  • administrative preparation - Make sure you’ve tied up all your loose ends, as far as you are able. This means delegating work, pausing projects and so on. You might not be able to do this, but try as much as possible. There were some poor souls on the programme who had to work on their 'jobs' on the side of the programme; the amount of homework doesn’t really allow for that and for you to sleep, so one will suffer if you try to continue things from your pre-Middlebury life.
  • tools and skills preparation - make sure you’re familiar with Anki, Lang-8 and other such tools before the programme begins. This’ll save you time and headaches that you could be using to learn actual Arabic words, phrases and more. (See below on some of the tools that I consider essential).
  • (typing practice - this one’s optional, but given how much you’ll find yourself having to type, I’d strongly recommend you practice this and get comfortable finding your way around the keyboard prior to attending the course, especially at the higher levels where you have to write dissertations of 2000+ words in Arabic (typed, of course). I don’t know of many options for PC-users, but for Mac users you can check out XType (on the Mac App Store) for a structured lesson plan for learning typing using the Arabic alphabet. There’s also Typing Master Arabic available online, but it’s a 100% Arabic-only course so that may or may not be appropriate for you.)

When to Study

Just a quick point here about sleep: it’s really important, especially when you’re cramming words down your throat day and night. Formal classes were usually finished by 3pm, but some people would take time off and only begin homework after dinner at seven or eight in the evening.

I’d strongly recommend you begin your homework immediately following the end of formal classes at 2.30/3pm. This way, you have some work to do after dinner, but it’s not an insurmountable pile of work, and you’re not going to be studying until 3am every day. You can keep up that kind of schedule for a week maybe, but not eight straight weeks of the programme. You’ll either drop out or lose your mind — both, I think, happened this year, to some extent. Don’t be that person.

Try where possible to do the unpleasant / necessary thing now so as not to have to do it later. The Middlebury Arabic programme does not really work well with any kind of procrastination behaviour. Enough said on that.

The Language Pledge

This is quite important, I think. There’s a qualitative difference in terms of how you approach the course if you’re committed to the language pledge and if you’re not.

A lot of people violated the pledge this year (Summer 2015), both on and off campus. I get that it’s sometimes good to let off steam and so on, but if you leave campus and talk English among yourselves, you’re missing out and you’re setting your study back.

(Total beginners aren’t subject to the language pledge, in any case, so don’t worry if that’s you).

Keeping Up with Vocabulary

This is a big one. The course, particularly in the higher levels, is big on encouraging the learning of words. And, in fact, the more I progress in my Arabic studies, the more I think the learning of words (in context, where possible) is perhaps the key thing to progress forwards. This also connects to my final conclusion about Middlebury, that an intensive programme is only useful if you’re taking the things you learnt on into the long-term.

The students of level 4.5 learnt around 3000 new words during the eight weeks of the programme. This doesn’t include words learnt while reading the assigned novel (see below), but I know it’s roughly 3000 because I have them all entered into Anki and I can see exactly how many times I’ve reviewed each one and so on.

Approximately 85 words per day (on each of the five study days per week) is not for the faint of heart. It’s unrelenting and it’s tough and it’s often dispiriting.

I could not have done it without spaced-repetition and my faithful Anki.

If you want to ensure that you’re not panicking every time there’s a weekly vocabulary test, and (more importantly) if you want to make sure that you’ll have a way to keep learning and reviewing the things you learnt while on the Middlebury programme, you have to use some sort of spaced-repetition software. I really don’t see any other way.

Again, I’ve written about spaced-repetition elsewhere so go check that out and then come back.

So now you know that Anki is basically a flash-card programme, one that presents words for review at exactly the right time so you’re not needlessly studying, reviewing and testing yourself on things that you know pretty well. As I said earlier, if you aren’t embracing some sort of software-based approach to storing the things you learn on the course, you’ll just forget it over the months after you leave the programme in which case, why did you pay $13,000 to attend in the first place?

So, to put you in my shoes, every day we’d study new texts, listen to things, write things and sometimes even get vocab lists themselves. Lots of input. After class each day, I’d take an hour (sometimes up to two) inputting the new bits of information into Anki to ensure that I can keep reviewing things during the course without stressing about which words to devote the most time to, and so on.

A typical entry might look something like this:


which will, in due course, create cards like this, to test my recall:


(That card is giving me a picture of a political prisoner along with the context of a sentence in which a word (mu3taqaliin) was originally present; it is my job to remember which word is suitable for that context, prompted by the picture to remind me. Note that the cards are 100% Arabic-only. This is important in general, regardless of the Middlebury language pledge.)

(By the way, this method of 100% target-language-only cards, and the formatting of the cards and a lot of the 'system' I’m describing here draws heavily on the system described by Gabriel Wyner in his fantastic CreativeLive course on learning languages. I’ve recommended that in the past, too.)

So I’ll do that for every new word we learned, sometimes formatting them those context-heavy cards, and sometimes cards without the context (especially when first learning a word, and when the word or phrase is something tangible). Like this:


…which is a prompt for me to recall the Arabic word for "hummingbird" (which I saw fly by me one day while walking around the grounds of the campus). When I click the card to check the answer, I also hear the word pronounced.

For words I’m learning for the first time, or for really abstract terms that I can guess are going to have a complex usage within different contexts, I would then write out — I still do all this, by the way, every time I learn a new word — a sentence or two to check that I’ve really grasped the meaning of the word and how to use it in the context of the real world. At the end of my study session, I’ll post all my new practice sentences over on Lang-8, and usually within about two or three hours they’ll all be corrected. I’ll then take the corrections, add them into Anki so now I have:

1) words presented without context

2) words presented with the context of whatever text we were studying at the time

3) words presented with an entirely new context, one which has personal relevance and immediacy to me because I wrote it.

This is how you learn lots of words.

If you’re not keen on posting things to lang-8, just take your practice sentences to your teachers during office hours each day (usually around 9 or 10pm) and get them to correct them together with you. Straight after you’ve been to see your teacher, go add those corrections into Anki so you can be tested on them (see more on this in the next section). Our teachers were happy to see students doing this, practicing the new words in context and seeing people taking the extra effort to master the material.

So if you’re doing this, you’ll actually be studying some hundred or so new cards every day — sometimes more, if you include the new words you study during colloquial classes — and in order to keep on top of this, you’ll need to start reviewing first thing every day. Seriously, just get up at seven in the morning and spend an hour every day before class reviewing the cards that Anki selects for you. Do another hour in the afternoon/evening and you’ll on the right path. It seems a lot, but the payoff is amazing. (I usually was reviewing Anki cards between 1-3 hours every day, depending on how many words I had added the previous day) throughout the eight-week period.)

(Side-bar: If you’re in a class that likes to work/collaborate together, you can — of course — spread out the workload of inputting words into Anki, and then everyone can benefit from sharing the files).

The night before tests, I would often see people around campus 'cramming' words, and the next morning I’d hear about how they were studying until 4am and so on. This is not a recipe for success in the long-term. This won’t help you retain the words after the course ends.

So start using spaced-repetition software and make it more likely that you’ll remember the things you learn…

Learning from Homework Corrections

I mentioned this in the previous section. The Middlebury course includes a decent amount of written homework every day (particularly in the higher levels). If you’re not finding some way of systematically reviewing the mistakes you made (after you get your corrections back), then you’re really missing out. In fact, you might as well not bother doing the homework if you’re not going to bother reviewing the corrected versions.

It works something like this. I’ll do it in English so you can see what I mean. I’d write a sentence like this, perhaps:

I go to the supermarket last week.

The phrase "last week" alerts us to the fact that the verb should be in the past tense. Thus, the corrected version should be:

I went to the supermarket last week.

So I’ll have a card that prompts me with:

I __ to the supermarket last week.

I’ll probably also have a picture of someone walking or "going" alongside that prompt, and the correct answer will be "went".

I made cards for every single homework correction or sentence where there was a mistake. Again, inputting it all can take a good chunk of time, and I would only input one or two instances of each error (i.e. if I misspelled the same word thirty times in an essay, I wouldn’t make thirty different cards testing the spelling of the word), but it saves time in the long-run. This is the speedy way to excise commonly-made errors from your life.

Learning Grammar

I approached grammar slightly differently during the Middlebury course. By the time you’re at level 4.5, you’ve already studied all the basic grammar you’re ever going to need, probably more than once. So the grammatical points we studied were a mixture of revision of the basics and some obscure aspects of the language.

Again, I’d make sure I wrote sample sentences practicing the grammar points under discussion and those would (post-corrections) make their way into Anki. If there were lists of things to be learnt — the seven forms of the siffa mushabahha, for example — I’d make a card that asks me for those seven forms, then I’d pick sample words in those verbal forms, then add them to a memory palace, and then the Anki system would keep reviewing my command of those seven forms. (Don’t worry if the details of what I just wrote were incomprehensible; just take away the fact that I was finding ways to test myself on the grammar we learned, in abstract form (i.e. a list of the forms) as well as in applied form (sample sentences using the things I’ve learned in real-world context).


Another thing the Middlebury course — like any decent language programme — includes a lot of is reading. Where possible, I used Steve Ridout’s excellent online service called Readlang.

I’ll let Steve explain the overall principle:

Now you know how Readlang works, you’ll have figured out why it’s such a valuable service. You read texts, you figure out the words you don’t know, and then you test yourself on those words using the context of the passage you just studied (and testing employs the spaced-repetition algorithm, too!). Readlang also allows you to export your 'learned' words into Anki.

There are some slight amendments I’d recommend for Arabic-learners. If you go to your account settings you’ll have the opportunity to enter in details for a custom Arabic dictionary. Delete whatever is the default there at the moment (probably Google) and use the following text to refill the form.

URL: http://www.aljazem.com/en/{query}

It should look something like this:


It’s one of the best online dictionaries for Arabic and works very well in conjunction with Readlang.

Colloquial/Dialect Classes

I don’t have too much to say about these. If your colloquial class teaches you a lot of new words, make sure to add them all to Anki and review as appropriate. You’ll probably have to pronounce the words yourself when making new cards — this explains the basics of how to do that — so make sure to make annotations on class handouts as to the vocalisation of the words (i.e. the vowelling) so that you’re not mispronouncing.

The Novel

We read Tayyib Saleh’s Mawsim al-hijra illa al-shomal ('Season of Migration to the North’) over the course of the eight-week programme. It’s not particularly long, but the language used is difficult, especially in terms of the huge number of new words.

The idea of studying a novel in the context of the Middlebury programme — as explained by the director and by our teachers — is exposure. Exposure to grammatical structures, exposure to phrases, exposure to culture, and exposure to vocabulary. You aren’t really meant to be learning all the new words, just trying your hardest to figure out what’s going on in the context of the story.

I used Readlang (along with a copy of the original Arabic text of the novel) to read the assigned chapters each week. That way I wasn’t spending all my time looking words up in Hans Wehr. The number of new/unknown words made that an untenable prospect.

I also got hold of an audio-recording of the text of the novel. This will be tricky to do, but it really pays off. As you may know, it’s hard to read a passage out loud in Arabic if you don’t know the meaning of the words and — sometimes — the grammar of the passage. (This has to do with how the language works). I’m also a fairly slow reader, so having an audio recording of the passages being studied is a real help.

I’d usually listen to the audio of the section due for a particular week’s study once or twice before even starting with the reading. Then I’d use readlang and go through line by line. And then I’d listen to the chapter another time, sometimes several times.

You’ll find it difficult to find recordings of novels in Arabic. For some reason there isn’t a market for them, and nobody is producing recordings, so you’ll probably have to make your own. This may involve asking your teacher on iTalki to do it (this is what I did), or asking a freelancer on Upwork or any of the many thousands of contracting/freelancer sites. Or just post a request on Facebook perhaps. You’ll probably be able to get it done for under $100, which in the context of your investment into the Middlebury programme isn’t actually a great deal, even more so if you split the cost between the members of your class and share the audio recordings.

Getting your hands on an audiobook version of the novel you’re studying is something I’d really strongly recommend.

Poetry Night

Towards the end of the programme, the course organizers put on an evening of poetry recitation. Students are given the opportunity (a few weeks earlier) to volunteer to recite a poem as part of the evening’s activities. It’s a long evening, and amongst all the other work you are busy with on the course, it’s hard to see why you’d volunteer to take on another burden, but it’s well worth it. It’s a chance to expose yourself to (often) highly stylized language. It’s a change to really polish your pronunciation. And, by the time you’re done rehearsing, you’ll probably have memorized the text so it’s also a chance to learn a poem in Arabic by heart. I recorded my recitation on that evening here. Apologies for any mistakes etc.

Further Online Resources

  • Context-Reverso — I have one of my fellow classmates to thank (Hi Yasmine!) for this gem. You put in a word, and it spits out example sentences (drawn from a big database of sample real-word texts) using that word in context. For the intermediate-advanced learner, it’s an amazing resource, far more useful than Google Translate or any others of its kind.
  • iTalki — I mentioned this above, especially in the context of your preparations for study at Middlebury. I also (where classmates were off campus on weekends, or in order to prepare for oral presentations and so on) scheduled one or two lessons during the programme itself so that I could talk through my ideas, or a difficult piece of text etc, with my teacher over Skype.
  • Lang-8 - I mentioned this above. Use it. Love it. Share it.
  • Electronic Hans Wehr — You can search the Hans Wehr dictionary online by root.
  • Forvo — great for getting audio pronunciation of words for use in your Anki deck.

Conclusion: How useful are intensive language study programmes?

I’m not sure how useful the "intensive" part of the Middlebury programme really is. Most students didn’t have a system to manage the massive levels of input, so a lot of their time and efforts were wasted. If Middlebury taught and offered ways for students to be better prepared — such s some of the things I’ve attempted to outline above — then perhaps I’d feel more charitable to the programme, but as such I feel many students were let down in some way.

So, after all that, was it worth it? On balance, yes, but mainly because I didn’t have to spend all that money for the course fees (on account of my scholarship) and also because I had systems in place to ensure that I wouldn’t forget the things that I was learning during the course.

If you’re a complete beginner and want to leapfrog ahead to the point where you can start teaching yourself, I’d recommend this programme. If you’re already at intermediate levels, you might want to look into other ways, especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have an employer or a grant that pays for your attendance.

I’ll be writing a separate post on resources available to the intermediate-advanced Arabic language student in due course, as well as on how to get out of the plateau into which it’s easy to find oneself. Till then, I hope you found this useful…

Arabic Language Update: I did it! (Almost)

My Beeminder accountability graph showing how I reached my goal for a study challenge in June

My Beeminder accountability graph showing how I reached my goal for a study challenge in June


Just a short post as I'm off away on an intensive language course for most of the next three months. This is the programme run by Middlebury College, but held in Oakland, California (USA) at Mills College. I was extremely lucky to win a Kathryn Davis Fellowship which covers the costs of the course and food and accommodation while I'm there. I have a BA degree in Arabic and Farsi from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, but 10 years in Afghanistan spent writing books and studying Dari and Pashto meant that my Arabic has atrophied considerably. I thought it was time to resurrect those old skills, in part as a way of deepening my understanding of some of the religious aspects of the Afghan Taliban and in part -- let's be honest here -- as a way of covering my bases prior to Afghanistan completely falling off the map a few months from now.

I'll be writing a much longer post on how to get a high-beginner-to-mid-intermediate level out of the well-known "intermediate language plateau" after the course finishes, specifically focusing on what resources are available to Arabic-language students who have good basic skills but want to go beyond that to more advanced materials. (Read these three posts for more on getting out of language plateaus in general terms.)

The Middlebury course caters to various levels of language ability, and since I didn't want to waste the opportunity just revising things I had already learnt at university, I had to do a good deal of preparatory work these past few months. I started getting serious about this preparation in February. This involved over 75 hours of spoken/conversation practice (and some grammar work) with a number of different native Arabic speakers over Skype (lessons made possible through iTalki.com), as well as a lot of reading and listening. In June, as you can see on the Beeminder graph displayed above, I challenged myself to get 100 hours of exposure to the Arabic language over a period of 30 days; this included some iTalki lessons, but was also a lot of listening to Arabic-language podcasts, time spent writing on lang-8 and lots of time spent doing so-called "extensive reading" (much more to follow on that in August/September). I managed 99.5 hours, in total, just short of the total required to successfully complete the challenge I'd set myself, but enough to really make my language proficiency come along in leaps and bounds.

An additional note to those who would like to get in touch with me during this period: as part of the Middlebury course, they expect participants to take a language pledge where you only speak the language of study (i.e. Arabic for me) for the duration of the period of study. Read more here. For non-Arabic speakers, if you want to get in touch with me, please visit Google Translate and translate your message into Arabic there before copying the full text and pasting that into the email. It's not perfect, but it allows me to continue to stay connected with the world without violating the language pledge. If I reply, I'll be doing that in Arabic, too, so you'll have to copy the text back into Google Translate to get a sense of what I replied.

I'll be away on the course until the end of August, and will thus ignore all non-essential email until then. If you write to me in English, I will also ignore your email until September. Thank you.

How I use Goodreads to pick what I read

So far this year, I have read 35 books. I'm trying something new for 2015 so I thought I'd write up the outline in case someone else finds it useful. As I wrote at the end of last year, I'll be reading 150 books over the course of 2015. That's fifty books more than I read in 2014. The point of it is to expose myself to lots of different ideas, different styles, different perspectives. I've found that 150 probably isn't an impossible amount to be reading (less than three a week) and I really relish brushing up against interesting authors and ideas.

I've used Goodreads as a way of tracking what I read for a long time now. I'm lucky enough to have an interesting group of 'friends' who also use it (more or less regularly) so there's usually a decent amount of new or niche books that I discover that way. I also use it as a way of noting down the books I want to read in the future. (Incidentally, I've never really had a problem in finding something new to read. The list of books I want to read will always be larger than the time I have to read them. That's just life.)

Goodreads offers a 'list' function whereby you can not only state that you 'want to read' a book, but where you can categorise things to your heart's content. Each year I set up a list ("2015toread" and so on) so I can see which books I think I'm more motivated to read that year. I'll usually take 5 or 10 minutes each weak checking over the list to make sure the things I added to the list are actually things I still want to read (versus things I added in the heat of a moment, after reading a particularly persuasive review, for example, but which I probably don't need to spend my time on).

Previously, I was generally following my gut with what I wanted to read next. Unfortunately, this often meant I went with the easiest option, or the path of least resistance. Long books (weighty histories, or more abstruse theoretical texts) would be passed up for the latest *it* novel or someone's entirely forgettable memoir about their time in Afghanistan that I'll feel obliged to read.

This year I've been trying a different approach. Goodreads allows you to sort lists by various bits of metadata attached to each book (author name, date added etc) but you can also sort by "average rating". This is the average rating given to a particular book by the entire Goodreads user base (20+ million users). You can see how this pans out in my current set of 'up next' books:


This "average rating" isn't in any way a guarantee of anything resembling quality. It's not that hard for authors to game the system, and books with few reviews (common for niche subjects like Afghanistan or Islam) have either really high or low ratings. But I'm finding this approach brings me to read far more books outside my path-of-least-resistance choices and often brings me into contact with some real gems.

Needless to say, this method of discovery is only a little better than putting all the names in a hat and picking one at random, but I am still finding some benefit. It does mess with my desire to read fewer male authors (you'll note in the picture above that only book number seven is by a woman; the rest are men) but everything in life is a tradeoff of some sort, I suppose.

Let me know if you find some use to this or if you have any other ways you pick what books to read next.

Apocalypse Then: a short review of Filiu's 'Apocalypse in Islam' (2011)


An enjoyable account of the idea of apocalypse in Islamic discourse, from the Qur'an all the way up until 2011. Filiu gathered together a huge melange of written sources on the apocalypse and he presents an overview of how differing conceptions have been cultivated by Sunnis / Shi'is over time. There is a slight bias in that most of the sources are in Arabic, and his focus is, broadly, the Middle East so South Asia is not particularly part of this story at all, not to mention East Asia proper which gets nary a mention.

I was almost completely ignorant of much of the developments detailed in the book, perhaps because I've focused more on South Asia in my own research/work. Indeed, I finished the book with a question on my mind as to why Afghanistan seems not to have the same obsession with ideas of the apocalypse as Filiu is suggesting is present in the Middle East. Perhaps it has something to do with Deobandism, though I'm not really sure of that... something to look into.

One other detraction: this is a historiography of transmitted ideas, but mostly of those written down. Filiu has lived for a long time in the Middle East (mostly in Syria, if I'm not mistaken) but you don't really get much sense of this in the book, nor of how all the books and ideas he discusses were received by actual people. Instead, there's a dialogue among authors and publishers -- a fascinating one, at that -- but I was left with the sense that something was missing.

Filiu tells of the construction of the idea of apocalypse, how circumstance and context contributed to the development of the ideas. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking in that: the events of a particular age shape the way ideas are framed. But the details of how publishers saw a market in apocalyptic literature were fascinating to read. Similarly, it was interesting to see how Shi'i interpretations seem to have followed a fairly different (though parallel) track of development.

The book has the really helpful feature of one-or-two-page summaries at the end of each chapter to help remind you of the overall argument that was covered. All-in-all a really clear presentation from Filiu of his ideas/argument.

Some other things I learnt while reading: (helped out by quotes from the book)

  • "The Qur'an has rather little to say about the end of the world, and still less about the omens of the Last Hour, whose prediction and description later came to be based on prophetic reports." (28)
  • "The apocalyptic narrative was decisively influenced by the conflicts that filled Islam's early years, campaigns of jihad against the Byzantine Empire and recurrent civil wars among Muslims" (28)

After page 70, the book gets into the post-1979 world, looking at three events that really spurred the development of apocalyptic ideas: the Siege of Mecca, the Iranian Revolution and the arrival of Soviet troops into Afghanistan. I hadn't realised, for example, that the war in Afghanistan was one factor that spurred the 1982 Hama uprising as their spiritual leader saw in it "certain signs of the Hour" (81). The book is filled with many such fascinating asides.

Covering the 1990s, Filiu shows how ideas from Christian messianism start to creep into the books being written about apocalypse in the Middle East, also including things like UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. This is when he also starts detailing how certain publishers and authors become factories for apocalypse literature, churning out books to satiate an eager audience.

All this is further accelerated by 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with more intermingling of sources and ideas. Filiu also chronicles how certain Islamic orthodox establishment figures (and their state sponsors) sought to play down apocalypse narratives. Interestingly, he shows how it wasn't really a significant theme for al-Qaeda either, at least not for its senior ideologues or leadership.

You can see how prescient Filiu was in reading the apocalyptic tea leaves when you get to the end of the book. Remember, he was writing this in 2007/2008 (when it was published in French), but he concludes by speculating that a merger of jihadism with messianism was probably due and that the mutation would be particularly difficult to manage:

"No inevitability pushes humanity in the direction of catastrophe, even if the popular fascination with disaster may seem somehow to favor a sudden leap into mass horror. And yet, coming after the gold of the Euphrates, widely interpreted in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq as a sign of the Hour, a fire in Hijaz may be all that is needed to set in motion a new cycle of eschatological tension, inaugurating an age of widespread fear and expectation that the end of the world is at hand. If an inflammatory and incandescent event of this sort were to occur, the chance that global jihad might undergo an apocalyptic mutation would give grounds for genuine apprehension." (193)

Anyway, for all the detractions mentioned above, this was a quick and fun read that gets you up to speed on thoughts about the apocalypse in the Islamicate world. Recommended, if this sort of thing gets you excited...

North Waziristan: A Reading List

Technically, this is South Waziristan... Photo credit: Drregor (via Flickr)

Technically, this is South Waziristan... Photo credit: Drregor (via Flickr)


I've been doing a bit of reading about North Waziristan in the English-language sources that are available outside Pakistan. It took a bit of time to put together a decent collection that gave real information. By 'real information', I mean things that speak of names, dates, places and events. I wasn't really interested in analysis, though that forms part of what follows. I was interested in the basic factual building blocks that must precede any analysis or understanding of a place. (That, and actually going there yourself). Most of these sources have are filled with stories and little details, all of which need triangulating with one another and with interviews on the ground.

I can't vouch for the veracity of any of it -- my experience in Afghanistan has given me an innate distrust for anything I read in a report, particularly if it was assembled outside the country -- yet this is what we have. There are, of course, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of news articles in the databases of Pakistan's media outlets, but I didn't trawl those yet. Needless to say, this is a work in progress and I will continue to update as and when I read more. It seems the area is also missing a well-sourced chronology akin to something like what I did for Kandahar or for the Taliban/Al-Qaeda relationship. I don't have the time at the moment to do this myself, but perhaps someone will be inspired to work on it. If you have any suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.

Books (Core)

Books (Supplementary / Tangential)




UPDATE: This continues to be added to as recommendations come in from various places here and there. (Last Update: January 3, 2015)

Some Books and Other Things from 2014


I have read 117 books so far this year. I think there are another five still likely to happen before the end of the month. Goodreads tells me that amounts to 28,616 pages or an average of roughly 80 pages per day. Seems like a lot, but it didn't feel that way. I set my goal for the year at 100 and it was consciously a very high number, almost unrealistically so. But in the end I never felt rushed, nor did it feel like a chore. As a result, next year I'm going to notch it up to 150. I enjoy reading books more than I fear the very occasional sense of pressure when I get behind on my reading. Beeminder has helped keep me honest and on track when it comes to my reading goals.

My Beeminder chart c. late November. I disabled it after I hit the 100 mark...

My Beeminder chart c. late November. I disabled it after I hit the 100 mark...


The breakdown of fiction:non-fiction in the books I read this year was pretty low (1:9 approx) but the gender balance was about 4:6 female-male, which isn't bad considering I was only side-glancing at that proportion as the year went on. For 2015, I will be consciously making sure to get more fiction in my reading diet, hopefully by as much as one-third or two-fifths of the total.

The only fiction book this year that really blew me away was Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Imagine a cross between J.M. Coetzee, Barbara Kingsolver and A.M. Homes. That's sort of what this book is, but to try to pre-introduce you to the plot or premise would do you a disservice. I'd strongly advise you not to read any reviews, comments or synopses of the book -- even the one written by the publisher. Just go read it. It's not only extremely moving, but it will also make you think.

I read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams much earlier this year, and it made me think about essay writing afresh. The book is a collection of pieces examining the idea of empathy from different vantage points. The showstopper first essay (from which the collection takes its name) was originally published in The Believer. You can read it here. I suspect after reading that you'll go and get the book. Her essays combine the confessional with the abstract and overthought. It's a very attractive mix, and, with the exception of one or two pieces, the book is compulsively readable.

The second non-fiction book that, really, everyone should go read right now is by my friend and colleague, Anand Gopal. No Good Men Among The Living covers the conflict in Afghanistan through the voices and perspectives of three Afghans -- one man who ends up fighting for the Taliban, a urban-educated woman who ends up in Uruzgan province, and a US-backed military strongman. Just for starters, it's refreshing to read something in which the author doesn't insert him or herself into the narrative like a sore thumb. It's sad that has to be said, but this is the exception not the rule these days. Anand dismantles the evidence surrounding the resurgence of the Taliban post-2001 and what he finds -- I'll let you follow him down that path -- is extremely disturbing if not entirely unexpected. This book is certainly one of the best things written about post-2001 Afghanistan and given the amount of energy and money that has been spent, it's worth taking the time to consider what worked and what didn't.

For some books, as you near the end you speed up as the plot comes to its inevitable conclusion, eager to find out how the story ends. For others, you slow down, not only because the themes of the book have started to intertwine around and in between one another, but also because you realise that soon this book will come to an end and this companion of the past few hours or days will start becoming but a memory. Rohini Mohan's The Seasons of Trouble:  Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War is a superb book. I can hardly imagine how the author managed to put it together. It reads like a novel yet feels so immediate as well. Mohan takes a similar approach to Anand, removing herself completely from the story and choosing instead to focus on the stories of three individuals who were caught up in Sri Lanka's unfolding civil conflict. I had read Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost in the past, but wasn't left with a very strong sense of Sri Lanka or its history. With this book, I feel I've learnt a lot. Mohan writes beautifully and the book has a strong narrative drive, such that I was up into the early hours of the morning finishing it. Just take my word for it. Buy this book. Read it. Thank me later. You'll be better off having read it.

Not everything in life is civil war and strife, though. This year I've been reconnecting with my body in various ways: by reading, through gymnastics classes and by working on my free-standing handstand. In this vein, I really connected with two books. Katy Bowman's Move Your DNA approaches movement from a bio-mechanical perspective (hinges, joints, and how the body works together as a system). Once you've read it, you can't think about your body and/or how you move it the same way again. The book introduces the idea of "diseases of captivity", which is to say, diseases brought about because of biomechanically skewed or minimised movement patterns. It's a really interesting concept, and as you read you'll find yourself sufficiently freaked out ever few pages to get up, check your posture, check your feet alignment and/or go for a walk. Unfortunately, Bowman doesn't always write in the clearest manner. Part of the premise of the book is that modern people have lost touch with their bodies (how to feel, how to describe, how to move) so I was hoping she would have found a language that would allow us alienated masses to better reconnect. That said, this is a great starting place. I could have done with a book with a thousand videos for each of the exercises she describes (and 3D interactive diagrams for the anatomy lessons) but this is a minor quibble. I will have to learn all that in due course. Bowman also offers courses, which I imagine are excellent in that there is a good deal of hands-on and individual experiential aspects to this book that I didn't quite get just from a read-through. I'll be working on the exercises over the coming months (years?). Certainly one of the most interesting/challenging books I read this year.

Jill Miller's The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body addresses similar things as the Bowman book but from a highly practical standpoint. There is a lot of theory and anatomy explained, but the core of the text are hundreds of pages of beautifully illustrated exercises. Miller recommends rolling on somewhat-soft balls to release the fascia (basically, the connective tissue in the skin and muscles) throughout the body. If you haven't done something like this before, the first time is really instructive. As someone who spent a good part of the past decade sitting behind a computer or book, writing or researching, I can testify to the toll this has taken on my body. This book is a really excellent first step in moving away from that tension, dysfunction and inflexibility.

My movement journey wouldn't have been possible without an initial boost from the kind people of Gold Medal Bodies. They're all genuinely nice people and they have provided useful guidance and support in this project of reconnecting with my body that I mentioned earlier. I'd particularly like to thank Verity Bradford for the help she's been giving me over the past couple of months while I've been working on my free-standing handstand.

Finally, a few words about death and time. The past year has been full of confrontations with the passing of time and the inevitability of death. These confrontations have taken various shapes and forms and have been closer to home as well as further afield. This is always a useful reminder, I feel. I reread Seneca's essay On the Shortness of Life this year and that helped drive the message home. But it's easy to forget. To help with that, I'm really glad to have been using a MyTikker watch for the second half of the year. It's a little bit like that chart of a human life in weeks that did the rounds earlier this year. On the watch, one row of digits shows the current time, and the other two show a countdown (based on statistical estimates calculated using a questionnaire) of the time you have left in your life. Of course, things can always happen out of the blue. You can't do much to prevent that. But to push back against the passing of time, death works to jog the mind. So now, every time I look down to check the time, I'm reminded that time is passing, that our days are short.

[Read previous year-end posts here: 2013, 2012, and 2010.]

New book: An Educator's Tale


The publishing house that Felix Kuehn and I set up has two new books out. The first of these is called An Undesirable Element: An Afghan Memoir and it tells the story of Sharif Fayez, the man responsible for much of the progress seen in Afghan higher education since 2001. The book also includes a lot from the 1980s jihad and pre-Taliban periods where the author was forced to leave the country -- fleeing to Iran before heading for the United States. This is an extremely readable book, and the story has a fast pace to it.

It's important to keep these Afghan voices and Afghan narratives in mind whenever thinking about the country. Amidst the plethora of commentary on Afghanistan written by foreigners it is easy to forget that Afghans understand their country best. Multiple 'understandings' exist, to be sure, but a failure to privilege the lived experiences makes useful intervention and hamkari much harder.

But don't take my word for it. Here are some clever people writing about what they learned from Fayez's book:

"An Undesirable Element is a fascinating tour through the tumultuous years that helped create modern Afghanistan. Fayez survived Soviet Afghanistan and revolutionary Iran, only to find himself watching from exile as his country devoured itself. Improbably, he returns after 2001 to help resurrect Afghanistan's devastated higher education system, giving an insider account of the challenges of building education in a land dominated by warlords and fundamentalism. The result is a poignant reminder of how much Afghanistan has endured, and the flicker of hope that remains despite it all."

-- Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among The Living

"A compelling read, An Undesirable Element recounts an Afghanistan many have forgotten. It serves as a rallying cry to once again imagine all that country might be. It's a tale as extraordinary as the land from which it comes."

-- Elliot Ackerman, author of Green On Blue

"An Undesirable Element moves fast as flames and offers a luminous account of the last half century of Afghan conflicts and redevelopment. Trevithick's oral history of Sharif Fayez's story is a trove: from a kiss on the head by the Afghan former King Zahir Shah, Fayez's life intersected with the future leaders and quiet supporters of his country--both heroic and tyrannical--from Columbia University to a Post-revolutionary University in Mashad, Iran. Fayez is a modest but robust storyteller whose eventual position as Afghanistan's first Minister of Education after the Taliban is only one of the strange twists and turns his story offers. His deft handling in the rebuilding of Afghanistan should be read by anyone interested in how one can use patience and determination to bring hope to a country reduced to rubble."

-- Adam Klein, editor, The Gifts of The State: New Afghan Writing

"The term visionary tends to be misapplied to those who are merely headstrong. But it is a perfectly apt description for Sharif Fayez, the most important figure in education in 21st-century Afghanistan, yet one that history may have neglected without his memoir. Such an omission would have deprived future generations of Afghans from understanding how Fayez, perhaps more than any single person, created hope for the country’s young minds at the turn of the millennium and, in so doing, altered a nation's destiny."

-- Martin Kuz, freelance journalist

Links to purchase paperback and electronic copies here...

Note-Taking Jujitsu, Or How I Make Sense Of What I Read

Note-taking is a problem. It's an interesting problem, but still a problem. Many people have switched over from paper books to digital copies. I am certainly one of the early adopters in this trend, having wrangled Graeme Smith and his sister into facilitating a first iteration of Amazon's Kindle to be delivered to my house in Kandahar.

My colleague Felix Kuehn and I used Kindle versions of books heavily in our research for An Enemy We Created. Using those references in footnotes was difficult at the time: the format was so new that established footnoting styles (APA/Chicago etc) hadn’t developed the standards for referencing kindle documents. All this was made harder by the fact that Kindle copies of books added a whole new problem into the mix by abandoning page numbers for ‘Kindle location numbers’. This changed a few years later, and current users probably won’t have this problem, but if you go look at the footnotes for An Enemy We Created, you’ll still find that many, if not most, of the references are to Kindle locations and not page numbers. In fact, I think our book was probably the first serious history work to rely so extensively on digital Kindle references in the footnotes; I remember having discussions with our publisher about it.


All this isn’t to say paper copies don't have their uses. But some books just aren't available in digital format. I'll get into the workaround for that later. The best way to make this less of a problem is to gently nudge publishers to issue their books on a kindle format.1 But I am already getting off track.

All this seemed to come to a head this past week, where a podcast I hosted together with Matt Trevithick took up the topic of notes and note-taking. Mark Bernstein, our guest on the show, wrote a really excellent book on the topic some years ago entitled The Tinderbox Way. I’d strongly recommend you read if you’re involved in knowledge work in any way. Here’s a short excerpt defining the importance and use patterns for notes:

“Notes play three distinct roles in our daily work:

•Notes are records, reminding us of ideas and observations that we might otherwise forget.

•Shared notes are a medium, an efficient communication channel between colleagues and collaborators.

•Notes are a process for clarifying thinking and for refining inchoate ideas.

Understanding often emerges gradually from the accumulation of factual detail and from our growing comprehension of the relationships among isolated details. Only after examining the data, laying it out and handling it, can we feel comfortable in reaching complex decisions.”2

Later in the week, Maria Popova (of Brainpickings fame) was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast to talk about her website, her reading and her workflow. Both Tim and Maria expressed frustration over the lack of tools for people wanting to download and interact with their Kindle clippings:

“I highlight in the kindle app on the iPad, and then Amazon has this function that you can basically see your kindle notes on the desktop on your computer. I go to those, I copy them from that page, and I paste them into an Evernote file to have all my notes on a specific book in one place. But sometimes I will also take a screengrab of a kindle page with my highlighted passage, and then email that screengrab into my Evernote email, because Evernote has, as you know, Optical Character Recognition, so when I search within it, it’s also going to search the text in that image. I don’t have to wait till I’ve finished the book.

The formatting is kind of shitty in the kindle notes on the desktop(…) if you copy them, they paste into Evernote with this really weird formatting. (…) It’s awful. If you want to fix it you have to do it manually within Evernote. (…) There is no viable solution that I know.”3

She then goes on to some more detailed points of how this doesn’t work, and Tim commiserates, suggesting that maybe they should hire some people to fix this problem. But the good thing is that there are solutions. The problems Maria and Tim bemoan are things that every other Kindle user has had to deal with since day one, so thankfully there are a number of workarounds that simplify the process of reading, annotating and sifting within one’s notes of a book or document.4

So notes are important, we get that. But how do we use them to their utmost? How do we even gather them together and store them? How do we use them for our writing, for our thinking? These are all important questions which I don’t feel have been properly answered, and where those answers have been given, they’re buried or hidden somewhere out on the internet.

I want this post to get into the weeds about how to get your materials off a Kindle device, how to store it usefully on a Mac (my apologies, PC/Linux users), and how to repurpose those notes to be creative, to write, and to think.

This post has three parts:

  1. Storage
  2. Clipping & Splitting
  3. Discovery & Meaning

It will by necessity be an overview of some useful tools and options for researchers, but if you leave comments I can probably expand on individual points/sections in follow-up posts if needed.

1. Storage

This is a problem that wasn’t explicitly raised in the things that motivated this post, but it’s something I get asked frequently. Maria and Tim both seem to be avid Evernote users, and I know many others also use this, but there are other options. It’s worth starting here because the tools will determine what you can do with your notes.

I’ve offered advice to other Mac users on what software to use for research projects that require a certain deftness in handling large quantities of sometimes disparate materials. The same applies to people who are just trying to keep track of the things they read, trying to draw together connections, and to derive meaning from it all. I’ll get into the meaning-creation in the final section, but for the moment, let me briefly describe our four options for file/note storage as I see it.5

  1. Finder/PathFinder. This is the lowest-tech option. Basically, once you split your files up (see section two) you store them in folders and refer to them that way. I don’t find this option very attractive or useful, because it’s like a filing cabinet. Your ability to discover connections and to remember what’s in those folders is pretty limited. I don’t recommend this at all, but from conversations with other researchers and writers, it seems this is the default option.
  2. Evernote. I include this here because it’s part of a workflow that we’ll cover later on. Evernote is great for all the reasons you can read about on their site. It syncs across all your mobile and desktop devices, it OCRs images so you can search for text captured inside photos you upload into your library of notes.
  3. DevonThink. This is my default ‘bucket’ for information, documents and notes. You can read up on the many (MANY) things that DevonThink Pro Office or DTPO (the version you should get, if you’re getting this software) does. Not only does DTPO store your documents, but it allows you to access that information in a number of extremely useful formats. There is a mobile app, too, though it could do with a bit more work. The most interesting feature of DTPO is its search and discovery functionality (using some magic sauce algorithms). They don’t make as much of this on their website as they used to, but I’d strongly recommend you check out these two articles (one, and two) by Steve Berlin Johnson which explain a little of the wonderful things DevonThink can do for your notes. As with the next recommendation, it’s not cheap. But powerful doesn’t always come cheap. It’s a solid investment if you spend the time getting to know this piece of software.
  4. Tinderbox. I discussed this at some length on the Sources & Methods podcast with Mark Bernstein, so I’d recommend you listen to that as your first port of call. Tinderbox is not an everything-bucket in the way that Evernote and DevonThink are, and I use it slightly differently, but it’s a great place to actually do the work of thinking, organising and writing once you have something (i.e. a project of some sort) for which you want to use all your notes. I’ll explain more about this in section three.

I’d recommend getting to know the different bits of software to get a sense of what they can do. DevonThink has a handy section of their website where you can see how people use it in their work lives. Tinderbox has something similar, with some case studies of usage.

For DevonThink, it’s generally good to keep your ‘buckets’/databases of files separated by topic. I have a mix of these kinds of databases (50 in total): some are country-specific, some are project-specific (i.e. to contain the research that goes into a book or a long report), and some are topic-specific (i.e. I have one for clippings and notes relating to Mathematics, one for things relating to Cardiology etc). I’d also recommend you give Steve Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From a read, particularly chapter 4.

Given the learning curve with some aspects of the workflow that follows, you might want to consider introducing these pieces of software one-by-one, or as needed. That way you’re using only what you understand and can implement things without being too overwhelmed by the novelty of the systems. It took me years (almost a decade) to implement and iterate the systems described below, and I’m still not finished modifying as the tools change.

2. Clipping & Splitting

This section is all about getting materials off mobile devices and onto your computer where you can put them into some sort of overarching database.

Accessing Your Amazon Kindle Clippings

First let’s sort out how best to get notes from a kindle onto your Mac. Don’t use Amazon’s website. It’s going to create all sorts of problems for you in terms of formatting.

First thing’s first: sync your kindle to the cloud. Just turn on the wifi/3G and select the “Sync” option. This will ensure all your highlights are backed up to the cloud.

Then plug your Kindle into your computer via USB. Then go into the “Documents” folder, and search for a file called “My Clippings.txt”. If you’ve been using your kindle for a while, it’s probably going to be quite large. Nevertheless, copy that file to your desktop. Feel free to eject your Kindle from your laptop now. We won’t be needing it any more.


An example of what you might see when you open your "My Clippings.txt" file


If you open the txt file that is now saved to your desktop, you’ll find all your clippings and annotations preserved in a useful plaintext format. This may solve your problems straightaway, in which case, congratulations: you now have all your annotations in a useful format that you can use however you wish.

If you want to take it to the next level, though, you’ll want to split this file up. At the moment, you have a very large plaintext file which contains all your notes. You’re likely to have notes from a wide variety of topics and books in here, so it doesn’t make sense for you to keep them all in a single location. The ideal solution is for you to have a single file for every clipping, a single file for every annotation.6

This is where Split-ter.scpt comes in. I’m afraid I don’t know who to credit for this wonderful piece of code. I downloaded it somewhere on the internet some years back and can’t seem to find a link to the author either in the code or elsewhere online. (Whoever you are, thank you!)

This script works with another piece of software mentioned above — DevonThink Pro Office. For now, I’ll ask you to ignore that bit, and focus on what’s happening to the file. I use the script to convert our “My Clippings.txt” file into multiple files. It goes in, finds a delimiter (any piece of text or syntax that repeats itself in the original file) and creates a new note/file every time it comes across this delimiter. In this way, you’ll quite quickly from the file shown above to something like this:

Now you have a note for every annotation and/or clipping. This is then something you can dump into Evernote, or keep in DevonThink. Again, more about the difference between these programmes in the next section. (Note, that you can use Tinderbox to split up the “MyClippings.txt” file as well using the “Explode” tool).

UPDATE (a little later on Friday night): Seb Pearce has just let me know that there are other options available for dealing with the 'My Clippings.txt' file. Check them out on his site.

The second problem raised on the Tim Ferriss podcast was Amazon’s limitations for clippings. This differs from publisher to publisher, it seems, so there’s no way of predicting it. An unfortunate rule of thumb: the more useful the book, the more likely the publisher has locked it down. When you’re making clippings inside the book, Amazon gives you no notification that you’ve reached the book’s limitations. But when you go to check your “My Clippings.txt” file to start using your notes, then you may find the note says:

"<You have reached the clipping limit set by the publishers>"

All the work you’ve done selecting pieces of text are for nothing, it would seem. The publisher has prevented you from using your book.

One solution is to remove the DRM from the book before you put it on your kindle. This is legal so long as you’re not sharing the book with other people (as this process would theoretically allow you to do).7 Follow this link to find out how to de-DRM your Kindle and iBooks documents. You can also visit libgen.org to download an already-DRMed copy of the book you’ve purchased. These will often be in .epub format so you’ll have to convert these over to a .mobi format if you want to use them on your kindle device. (To convert from .epub to .mobi, use the free Calibre cross-platform software.)

If you read a de-DRMed copy of a kindle book on your kindle device, there will be no limitations as to how much you can annotate. The publishers limitations will all be gone. So that’s one option.

For those who aren’t comfortable removing the DRM on your books, you can get all your annotations out, but it comes with a little bit of hassle.

Here’s an example of what I mean (screenshot from my DevonThink library). I was reading in Hegghammer’s excellent Jihad in Saudi Arabia and making highlights (at 4:06am, apparently) but at some point I hit the limit imposed by the publisher.


The workaround to bypass this limit from the publisher is to first export all your notes out of your “MyClippings.txt” file. So all your clippings are saved, even though some of them may not work. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the final three notes aren’t working because of the publisher’s limitatations. That’s the case in the screenshot above. What you do is (again, once you’ve backed up the clippings txt file) delete three of the earlier clippings that you already have. Then you sync your Kindle to the server and it will think that you have clipped three less quotes, so these will then become available (both in the myclippings.txt file and on the website. Like I said, it’s a bit fiddly. I would much rather remove the DRM completely and not have this hassle at all, though when you do that Amazon will not sync your clippings to the cloud and to their kindle.amazon.com database. You’ll have to export them using the tools I mentioned above.

Keeping Up With The Joneses, or How to Use Instapaper to Clip Web Articles

This may be something completely idiosyncratic to my own workflow, but I don’t enjoy reading articles in a web browser. I’d also prefer not to be hijacked into reading all these articles. For instance, when I’m in Tweetbot/Twitter or Facebook and I see a link that I like, I will almost never read that article then and there. Rather, I’ll send it to my Instapaper queue.

First, a quick word about Instapaper vs Pocket. I use Instapaper. I started off with them, switched over to Pocket for about two years, and now I’m back with Instapaper. They’re both more or less the same. Instapaper happens to be what I’ve chosen for myself because of their handy Kindle service. (If you have articles in your queue, you can have Instapaper send the most recent articles to your Kindle at a particular time (i.e. first thing in the morning) which you can then clip and archive to your heart’s content.) Both Pocket and Instapaper work with what follows, so just pick one and stick to it. I’d recommend Instapaper because they allow for the sharing of the full texts of articles and because of the Kindle digest feature.

I find I have so much to stay on top of and keep tracking online, I can’t just click around and read things as and when I see them online. I schedule time apart for reading of my Instapaper queue (and for reading books on my Kindle) and only read during those times. (I do the same with email, only checking and responding to email between the hours of 12-1pm and 5-6pm each day. The rest of the day email is off and disabled. I even deleted my email account on my iPhone as inspired by this medium.com post.)

My workflow with web articles is to follow as much as possible via RSS. I prune the sites I’m following every three months, but in general the number is stable around 650. I use Newsblur as my RSS reader, and every time I find an article I’d like to read (later), I use the handy ‘send to instapaper’ bookmarklet. This sends the article to my Instapaper queue.

The same goes for twitter. I follow enough people on Twitter for it to be impossible for me to read every post that passes through my stream. I will dip once or twice a day, however, to see what people are saying. I use two services to monitor my Twitter and Facebook streams to pick out the most-shared articles to ensure that I don’t miss the big sharks of the day. They’re both free, and I’d strongly recommend you signing up and getting their daily summaries of what people were talking about on Twitter that day. News.me has been around for a while and I trust their article selection. Nuzzel is newer, but it seems to have a few more options. I guess you could probably do with picking only one of the two.

After reading articles on my Kindle (or sometimes on a mobile device like my iPad or iPhone), you can clip the article if you want to save it (just like making a clipping inside a book, only the entire article is saved).


This is what you see in an article when you click to "Clip This Article" on a kindle...


Then your clippings will be captured in the ‘MyClippings.txt’ file as explained above and you can export them directly to DevonThink or Evernote or Tinderbox. (The main downside to doing things this way is that when the kindle clips it, all formatting is lost (including paragraph breaks)).

Alternatively, you can ‘Favourite’ the article. I use this setting because it then sends the article and URL to my @stricklinks twitter account, something I created to share the best things I was reading. It also saves the full text of the article to Pinboard (a service I’ve already written about on my blog here) and to Evernote. (I use If This Then That to facilitate this.)

Once I’m done reading, I can go into Evernote and all my articles are waiting for me to be sorted through. Because I use DevonThink as my everything-bucket, and because all the sorting and discoverability features are there, I have a separate stage of exporting my notes out of Evernote into DevonThink. I’ve already probably taken you a little too far down the rabbit-hole of my workflow, but this is an important stage because otherwise you can’t do anything with your notes.

Luckily, someone has written a script which makes this possible. Many many thanks to the good people at Veritrope for updating the script every time updates to the software get released. It’s fairly self-explanatory. You select the notes that you want to export, choose which DevonThink folder you want to export to and then it goes to work. It can occasionally be buggy and stop half-way through, but usually a little trial-and-error will let you pinpoint which Evernote note is causing the problem and you can transport that one over manually.

I usually do an export session to bring everything from Evernote into my DevonThink inbox once a week. This way the number of clippings doesn’t get too out of control, and I’m not constantly playing around with this during the week. You might find this all is overkill, but it has become an essential part of my workflow to store the various things I’m reading on a daily basis.

Pillaging Your Hard Copies, AKA Living the Paperless Dream

You may have hardcover copies of books that you want to use as part of this system. One way to use them is to scan the books into your DevonThink library. DevonThink Pro Office comes with an OCR package (via ABBYY FineReader) so whatever you scan can then become searchable and useful.

In the past, particularly with books I’ve purchased in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are unlikely (read: never) to be made available as electronic versions, I take a Stanley knife to the bindings, feed the pages into my ScanSnap scanner which scans both sides and compiles all the scans into a single PDF document that is searchable on my laptop. The whole process is destructive of the book, but it gives the text inside a new life. Given how fast the new ScanSnap models work (around 25 pages per minute, both sides), this is an attractive way to get digital access to materials that are only available in paper form.

You can highlight text within the resulting PDFs and then later export your clippings from those PDFs as notes into DevonThink. There’s another useful script to help with that. It only works with the free Skim PDF reader, but that’s my default PDF reader so it works out well.

For more on paperless workflows, check out David Sparks’ Field Guide on the topic.

3. Discovery & Meaning

If you made it this far, congratulations. This is the section where all the fiddling with export starts to take on some meaning. After all, we’re not reading and exporting these notes purely because we are hoarders or to fetishise the art of collection (though in some cases, that may be what’s going on). No, we are taking notes because we are trying to understand difficult topics, because we are trying to solve important problems.

Discovering Links and Connections

The Steve Berlin Johnson articles referenced earlier are an essential first stop, particularly in demonstrating how DevonThink can add some serendipity into how you use your individual notes. To give you an example of how this works, here’s a screenshot from my ‘TalQaeda’ database that I put together while working on An Enemy We Created:


In the upper part you can see a bunch of notes relating to the Haqqani family. The lower left part is the contents of a note (Note: exported from Instapaper). The bottom right list of documents (under “See Also”) is a list of notes that may be related to this particular quote. This is the magic algorithmic sauce I mentioned earlier that makes DevonThink so powerful.

If I click through to some of those suggested notes, I’m taken to similar quotes on the same topics, two PDFs of reports (of dubious analytic value, but that’s a separate issue), three clippings from Kindle books where people are making reference to the relationship between the Haqqanis and al-Qaeda (the subject of the original note). Note that I didn’t have to pre-tag documents for this ‘see also’ functionality to work its magic. It analyses inside the text and makes its suggestions based on the similarities it identifies. (Needless to say, it’s not simply a matter of matching individual words. Some of the suggested notes don’t mention al-Qaeda or the Haqqanis by name, but they are implied; DevonThink catches this all).

Once you start to build up a decent database of notes (my Afghanistan database has just under 65 million words of notes, including 12,800+ PDFs) this ‘See Also’ functionality really allows for some unexpected links to be made, especially when you’re at the stage of writing up a project/book. One note will lead to another note, which will lead to another note. If you follow these trails of notes (like breadcrumbs) you can develop a pretty idiosyncratic picture.

I do not know of a manual method which allows for this kind of process.

DevonThink has an extremely robust search function which allows you to find things along similar principles (including a very useful ‘fuzzy spelling’ option, perfect when checking my database for notes on someone whose first name could be spelt Mohammad, Muhammad, Mohammed or any of the other variations).

Figuring Out What It All Means

Once you have an idea of the outlines of the topic, once you’ve been taking notes for a while, your database in DevonThink is probably starting to fill with useful information.

If you’re writing a book, though, you’ll want to start writing alongside this gathering process. (Check out Michael Lopp’s overview of the process of writing a large research book, which, to my mind, is fairly accurate.)

I don’t find DevonThink a particularly pleasant place to write, so I do that elsewhere. Before I write things out in long form, I usually do some outlining, particularly if it’s something where the dense collection of factual detail is important to the development of the argument (as was the case with An Enemy We Created). For this, I find Tinderbox indispensable for working up an overview of what I know, for figuring out how I’m going to structure it, and for helping me put together my first draft.

Tinderbox can display notes in a number of different ways. You can view your documents as outlines, as maps, or even as timelines:


In this image you can see the information arranged as an outline, but here (below) you see the same information organised as a map (mirroring the actual layout of the map of those districts in a particular part of Kandahar):


Just to show you that it can handle complexity, here’s a map created by Felix to help him figure out how people involved in militant Islamism were/are connected across different geographical sectors:

It's complicated...

I’ll often use Tinderbox maps to store outlines for how I’ll write a particular section or chapter, making notes inside the document, dragging quotes in from DevonThink to supplement the argument that’s being constructed.

Getting to the point where you can actually start writing on the basis of your notes is the whole point of all of this. Technology is useful, but mainly when directed at a specific problem or goal. All the tips, tricks and software described in this post has helped me write books, reports and (coming soon!) even my doctoral thesis/PhD. I have encountered only a few (barely a handful) researchers who use their computers for this collation, sifting and discovery process. There’s no way to keep it all in your head. Here’s hoping more people start adopting these tools…


  1. For many years, Amazon offered users the ability to let publishers know that you wanted to see title X or Y on a Kindle format, but they failed to make this piece of interaction useful by keeping track of what you'd requested of publishers (so as then to be able to let you know when it was finally released in Kindle format).
  2. Excerpt From: Mark Bernstein. “The Tinderbox Way.” iBooks.
  3. Selective transcript from around the 50-minute mark in the podcast audio. Needless to say, the rest of this blogpost constitutions a ‘viable solution’.
  4. Most of these are derived from other people, I should say. I try to give credit where I can, but sometimes I can’t remember where I first read something or who first recommended a particular tool or trick.
  5. Yes yes, I know, I’m going to leave out some mentions for useful software here. This is an overview, and I’m just trying to describe some options for what might work in certain situations.
  6. A clipping is when you have selected and copied a passage from the book for safe-keeping, and an annotation is when you yourself write a note connected to a particular passage.
  7. Needless to say, don’t take legal advice from me.

Sources & Methods: Podcast Follow-Up

We're five episodes old! The small podcast I started together with Matt Trevithick is coming along nicely. In our most recent episode, we talk with programmer and note-taker Mark Bernstein. Mark is the force behind the notetaking and outlining software, Tinderbox, much beloved by knowledge workers. This episode is about note-taking, its uses and why people need to think reflexively about the work they're doing.

It seems to have struck a chord with listeners: we've had three times as many as usual. That could also have been helped by a mention over at The Atlantic from James Fallows:

Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.

The Director of Teaching and Learning, for the Bedford/St. Martin's imprint of Macmillan Education publishing house wrote a blogpost about the episode in which he recommended educators give it a listen:

There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and find order. In a way, it's about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

I've added a number of podcasts to my regular queue in Overcast and in case you could use some recommendations, the following are almost always worth a listen, especially if you like the kinds of things you hear on Sources and Methods: